Monday, March 7th, 2011

Student Elections’ Dirty History: Controversy and Apathy

Student Elections

Every ballot cast makes a difference in a student election.

Young people across Canada are known for their political apathy, despite it being our duty as a citizen and something we’re often requested to pay attention to as students. And so, like putting Harper in some racy lingerie, I’d like to shed some light on the spicier side of university student government.

Most of the time, people don’t care who’s representing them. Yes, they complain about tuition hikes, are shocked when a building is erected where their Frisbee field used to be – but most don’t put “2+2” together. And it’s not as if there’s not publicity for elections, bodies can be as small as student associations and as big as the campus’ Alma Mater Society (AMS).

UBC’s Famous Frederick-Gate

I’d like to start with an anecdote about the actions of The University of British Columbia’s 2009-2010 AMS President, who made a move so daring, bold and utterly stupid that people still refer to it fondly as “Frederick-Gate”.

Along with one of the VPs (External Affairs, I think), he complained to the United Nations that the tuition increases imposed on UBC students were against human rights. Yes. The United Nations. That United Nations. Google it, local newspapers as well as many blogs covered the story. Unfortunately, our President was immediately impeached by the AMS.

Scandal and dirty politics are apparently inherent in university government. UBC is actually quite renowned for fraud during elections. Beginning in 2007, and ending with last years 800 false votes, fraudulent voting was, apparently, the season’s new black.

What’s more, the AMS actually allowed those candidates found guilty of fraud to take and hold their seats in 2007. After that the “stuffing the ballot box” continued and the smear campaigns began.

This year, the current President created blogs and video campaigns against one of the candidates for presidency, who retaliated with blogs denouncing the President. What’s most interesting? The current President wasn’t running for re-election, and the object of the smear campaign actually won.

Funnily enough, as I write this article I’m approached by an AMS member raising awareness about the “loophole” referendums trying to piggyback on the tri-annual U-Pass vote (that’s our student bus pass). We chat for a bit about the shady UBC politics and I find out about another scandal that took place last year – using AMS funds to try and send a flotilla to break down the blockade in Gaza. Now, considering the international community at UBC, our identities as Canadian peacemakers, and students, doing something this politically volatile is just plain stupid.

Apparently the president thought so too – the legal fees trying to stop the flotilla and calm everyone down approached $10 000. The flotilla, which was sent anyways, cost $700.

Most Students Don’t Care About Student Council

The curious thing is, with all this excitement, the number of voters are shockingly low. A little under 6000 votes were cast for AMS President this year. Considering UBC is composed of nearly 40 000 students. That’s a lot of people who don’t have enough time to log onto a computer for five minutes during a one week voting period. Unfortunately, all this dirty politics might come out of the apathy of voters.

If no one is interested enough to keep you in check, or interested enough to even vote, then candidates are going to get wild. In order to reach student voters, often the candidate “names” border on the absurd, blatantly going for the attention grab. A very educated, articulate, and conscientious friend of mine consistently ran under the pseudonym “Obi Wan Kenobi”, not for a laugh, but to get people to log off Facebook and log onto the election site. This year, a presidential candidate ran as “the Beard”; promised to keep facial hair in check and making other ridiculous, unimportant claims.

The smear campaigns, the ballot- stuffing, and even the terrible decisions made once in office. They should be enough to grab the attention of the student body – all the information is just a Google or conversation away.

But they’re not. And the only ones who suffer for those decisions, who scoff at the “stupid” candidate blurbs and don’t bother reading the “real” ones, they’re the students. The ones who don’t care enough to vote. Or vote without looking into who and what they’re voting for.

Make Election Day Matter

Every ballot cast makes a difference, every time you check a box during a referendum or decide not to go to a general meeting about “re-zoning or some shit”, you are making a decision not to care and you are going to get exactly that back: a government who does not care about you.

Change this. Pay attention to elections. Start small, maybe with the Student Association for your faculty. You can easily get to know those people and what they are doing for you and your faculty. Vote during elections, but don’t just vote for the funniest blurb, or name. Vote for the person whose campaign you agree with, the one whose speech you liked, the one who took a moment to answer questions, the one whose proposed actions you think would be great.

You could even just Google your schools AMS or student government body – see what scandals they’ve had in the past years, if any. Politics aren’t as dry as you might think, like Harper in a garter belt.

Sasha Duncan
Author: Sasha Duncan
Sasha is a third-year student at UBC Vancouver, she's making the most of the time until she graduates and then has to figure out just what to do with herself post-graduation.
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